For good or ill, the J-horror boom came to dominate Japanese cinema at the turn of the century, and if anyone can be said to have been instrumental in ushering it in, director Hideo Nakata and novelist Koji Suzuki, whose landmark collaboration on The Ring has become symbolic of the entire genre, must be at the head of the list. Dark Water finds the pair working together again on another supernaturally tinged, creepy psychological thriller. Neatly marrying the classic J-horror tropes of freaky children and dripping wet ghosts, Dark Water also embraces aspects of the uniquely Japanese “hahamono” or mother movie which prizes maternal sacrifice and suffering above all else.
Yoshimi, a nervous middle aged woman, is in the middle of a messy divorce with her exceedingly smug salaryman husband. Despite having been less than present during the marriage, Yoshimi’s husband now wants full custody of the couple’s five year old daughter, Ikuko. In order to aid her case, Yoshimi quickly finds an apartment and starts looking for a job. All seems to be going well except for the mysterious dripping stain on the ceiling which the building manager doesn’t seem very interested in fixing. Before long, strange events begin unfolding including unexplained puddles, a mysterious red children’s shoulder bag which keeps reappearing after being thrown out, and brief sightings of a little girl in a yellow raincoat...
Nakata opens the film with what is in effect a flashback sequence as Yoshimi waits for her own mother to pick her up from primary school. It quickly becomes apparent that Yoshimi’s relationship with her birth mother was an imperfect one which later ended in neglect and abandonment. Yoshimi continues to have frequent flashbacks to her childhood and harbours and intense fear of inflicting the same kind of damage her mother inflicted on her onto her own daughter. Ikuko is also left waiting at school when Yoshimi is kept late at a job interview - something which is eventually used against her in the court case. Though Yoshimi’s aunt reassures her that she’s doing a much better job than her mother did for her, Yoshimi is filled with doubts as to her suitability as a mother which are only further compounded by her intense love for her daughter and fear of losing her.
On top of her maternal worries and residual abandonment issues, Yoshimi also has a history of mental distress which her ex-husband uses to discredit her. It’s open to debate exactly how much of what appears to be happening is actually happening and how much a manifestation of a possible nervous breakdown, but aside from the supernatural shenanigans there are also real world dangers to consider including the missing posters for a girl who was around Ikuko’s age when she disappeared two years previously. The primary school headmaster is convinced that the girl was abducted by a third party but it also transpires that Mitsuko, just like Yoshimi and just as Yoshimi fears for Ikuko, was abandoned by her mother.
When it comes right down to it, Dark Water lays the blame for its supernaturally tinged evil firmly at the feet of divorce and family breakdown. The supposedly progressive primary school in which the main aim is to allow children freedom of expression is quick to tell the already overwrought Yoshimi that the “strange behaviour” they’ve been witnessing in Ikuko is essentially all her fault because of the divorce and disruption to Ikuko’s home life. Similarly, the central supernatural threat is born of maternal neglect, a symptom of the selfish individualism of the mother who has chosen to leave her child behind. Yoshimi has been jettisoned by her controlling ex-husband and her only thought is to keep her daughter with her, yet she is being made to pay for a social prejudice against atypical families such as those resulting from a “selfish” decision to dissolve a marriage.
Dark Water cleverly recasts Yoshimi as an idealised mother willing to sacrifice all to protect her child. As the situation intensifies, Yoshimi begins to feel as if she’s becoming a toxic presence in her daughter’s life. Rather than risk the same fate befalling her own daughter as has befallen her, Yoshimi opts to make herself the last link in the chain of abuse, freeing her daughter from her own baggage. In contrast with both Yoshimi and Mitsuko, Ikuko will always know that her mother loved her and will always be with her even if protecting her from afar.
Nakata conjures up a supremely creepy atmosphere filled with everyday horrors. The run down apartment complex in which Yoshimi finds her (presumably very reasonably priced) apartment is an unsettling world of its own with its strangely moist, dripping walls, eccentric residents, and rapidly decaying exterior. One of the most effective and visually interesting entries in the J-horror genre, Dark Water perfectly mixes creepy, supernatural horror with psychological drama culminating in a final sequence which doesn’t stint on the scares but proves emotionally devastating in the process.